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Beyond hashtags: Instagram's next challenge is tackling big data

CEO Kevin Systrom says the photo-sharing site needs to create more ways to organize all the photos pouring into the Instagram network.

Donna Tam/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO -- Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom said his company's big hurdle is knowing how to mine the constant stream of photos being uploaded each day to the popular network.

"Instagram isn't necessarily a photo company, or a communications company as I like to say, we're also going to be a big data company," he said today at the GigaOm Road Map conference in San Francisco.

Systrom said the company, recently purchased by Facebook, needs to find better ways to organize the billions of photos shared on Instagram. That means looking beyond hashtags for looking up or grouping photos.

"Hashtags are a great first stab at that, but over time we're going to come up with better ways of letting people curate experiences," he said.

Systrom pointed to theuse of Instagram during Hurricane Sandy. More than 800,000 photos were uploaded with the hashtags related to the superstorm. Systrom said it was the first time a single world event was captured in this way, with people sharing damage from fallen trees or which gas stations were still open. Systrom envisions Instagram becoming more of a communication tool for users.

A focus on big data also means an awareness of the challenges that come with dealing in big data, particularly transmitting large amounts of data like Instagram users do. Systrom said this will be Instagram's one limitation moving forward.

"The one thing that is going to keep us back, in the short term, is the ability to get the data through the phone," he said. "We need to innovate on that end."

Systrom also spoke about the possibility of video -- which would definitely be a data constraint just because of the size of video files -- coming to Instagram.

"At some point, maybe, but it's just like I said, I don't think it's ready," he said about venturing into the already crowded space of video-sharing networks. Systrom said video is a difficult endeavor because of the time and effort it takes to consume and create. Video can only be successful if companies can make those processes faster, but he thinks it's achievable.

"I think someone's going to work on that and do it very well," he said.